Here I sit, propped up with pillows on my room’s private porch with a cup of tea, looking out at the storm clouds gathering over Anemalay in the distance, the elephant-shaped mountain that greeted me upon my arrival at Vaidyagrama five months ago. I never had much time to just sit and watch her and the movement of the clouds around her back then. I asked for this room during pancha karma treatment particularly for this view. I will have 35 days of treatment to soak it in.
Pancha karma is an intensive method of ridding the body and the mind of the crud that builds up over time in the little crevices that are so prevalent in a human. Theoretically, with a perfect diet and optimal digestion (about which Ayurveda provides lots of guidance) there would be no crud. However, most of us end up with some cobwebs in the corners, which eventually lead to those nagging little symptoms that tell us something’s not quite right – in my case, some stiffness and pain in my finger joints, and recently in my ankle and hip. Left alone, even the smallest detritus can lead to more disruptive symptoms that scream for attention, like the Parkinsonian tremors of a fellow patient here right now. So, either to address manifest disease or as a preventive measure, Ayurveda recommends regular “deep cleaning,” namely pancha karma.
There are many aspects of pancha karma treatment. A variety of herbal medicines do some of the heavy lifting, along with daily hands-on therapies, but the real stars of pancha karma are the “five actions” to which the Sanskrit term alludes. These are the rather rigorous cleansing treatments that the doctors prescribe based on each patient’s unique symptoms and conditions: therapeutic vomiting, laxative purging, medicated enemas, blood-letting, and nasal administration of medicine. Blood-letting is rarely done these days (although leaches are still employed for this purpose when called for), and the most commonly prescribed actions are purging and medicated enemas. Each treatment plan involves preparing the body for one or possibly two of these primary treatments, and then recuperating from it, building the patient back up with rejuvenative medicines and therapies. Many of the daily therapies are quite lovely, involving some form of oil massage.
Vaidyagrama was created with the intention of providing authentic Ayurvedic treatment, sticking very closely to the ancient texts and the traditional ways of designing treatment, and doing so within a natural setting. We’ve been taught that an ideal pancha karma requires at least 21 days, and more is usually better. While some places offer it on an outpatient basis, a retreat setting allows a more complete process physically and mentally since all of your needs (like food, clean bed linens, etc.) are provided and you are not disturbed (or tempted) by your usual routines, responsibilities or stresses. Dr. Ramdas has said that a peaceful, compassionate environment may be responsible for up to 80% of the healing effect. From my vantage point here on the porch, I can see what he’s talking about.
My daily routine now looks like this:
5am Wake, do some gentle yoga, meditate.
6am Someone brings me my first medicine (taken on an empty stomach), an herbal decoction (which one of the therapists prepared the day before, boiling the required herbs for about 45 minutes to reduce the decoction to the appropriate strength – now that I have done it for myself, I am even more appreciative of the work that goes into one patient’s care here.)
6:15am Morning prayers – held in the courtyard of one of the patient buildings, rotating location each week. It’s been in our block this week, so I simply roll out of my room and sit down right outside the door.
7:15am The most delicious herbal tea is brought to my room, made of ginger, cinnamon and jaggery and some other mystery ingredients – I gotta get the recipe.
8:30am Breakfast is brought to my room, along with my second medicine of the day, to be taken on a full stomach – an arishtam (which is one of the most delicious types of medicines; it is prepared by a fermentation process over the course of a month or two, kind of like a sweet herbal wine).
11am Another cup of herbal tea is brought to my room.
12:30 Lunch is brought to my room, and then the arishtam again.
4pm Snack time! Tea and steamed bananas… yummy.
6pm Decoction time (the empty-stomach medicine)
6:15pm Evening prayers
7:30pm Dinner, and then the arishtam
9pm I am usually beat and fall into bed gratefully
Somewhere in between the meals and medicines, the doctors will stop by to assess me, and once a day I’ll have a treatment. Even with those added events, you can see that there is lots of free time for… being still. You’ll notice they bring all the medicines and meals to my room. In fact, they discourage leaving the room, exposing yourself to the elements of sun, wind and social interactions that can sap energy you could use in healing. Some of the treatments are quite tangibly taxing, while others are more subtly so. Hence they encourage remaining as quiet and internally focused as possible.
This is easier for some than others. I happen to have a high tolerance for alone time and reflection – I crave it – so I am loving every minute of it. I have been moving so much, mentally and physically, for the five months we’ve been in India, taking in information and processing various kinds of stimulation. My body, mind and heart are eagerly spreading out into the empty time and space here, slowing down and taking new shapes. I believe this may be when the biggest part of my education takes place.
I am told pancha karma can get boring, and that dealing with that is part of the process…. I’ll let you know.